Time Gets the Stimulus Wrong

I wrote yesterday that The Wall Street Journal had been too accommodating of White House spin on stimulus spending. Today, Time goes too far the other way.

The magazine reports in its headline: “Obama’s Stimulus Plan: Failing By Its Own Measure,” and its lede says that the stimulus is “turning out to be far less stimulating than its architects expected.”

Its, uh, evidence for that:

Back in early January, when Barack Obama was still President-elect, two of his chief economic advisers — leading proponents of a stimulus bill — predicted that the passage of a large economic-aid package would boost the economy and keep the unemployment rate below 8%. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Last month, the jobless rate in the U.S. hit 9.5%, the highest level it has reached since 1983.

That’s somewhat misleading, but this is just downright misleading:

A little over a month ago, the Administration said the stimulus bill had created or saved 150,000 jobs. That’s a far cry from the 3 million to 4 million jobs that Romer and Bernstein foresaw back in January.

The problem with Time’s framing of the issue in that first misleading paragraph is that everyone knows the economy deteriorated much faster than Obama’s team and economists in general predicted back in January. Now you can criticize Obama for being too sanguine about the economy’s prospects back then—and you should!—but you can’t blame his stimulus package for not preventing the unemployment rate from skyrocketing due to events unleashed long before he took office.

The second misleading paragraph is more egregious. Times implies that the Obama team “foresaw” 3 million to 4 million new jobs by now, but only came up with 150,000. What failures!

Actually, they predicted that number by the end of next year, something Time only grudgingly tells it readers a few paragraphs later (emphasis mine):

The two economists did say in the report that they expect the bulk of the jobs created by the stimulus to happen in 2010 and 2011.

They “did say,” huh? You can bet then that sentence will be followed by a “but,” “however,” “nonetheless,” or “still.”

Nonetheless, the report says that even by the middle of this year, the stimulus bill would have a positive effect on the unemployment rate. Without the stimulus, the two economists predicted, the unemployment rate would rise to around 8.5% by the middle of this year; add the stimulus, and that rate would drop by half a point. In reality, the unemployment rate is a full percentage point higher than what Romer and Bernstein predicted it would be without a stimulus.

This doesn’t make sense. If the stimulus has created 150,000 jobs already, as Time concedes, then it’s had a “positive effect on the unemployment rate,” no? Just because their projections about the pace of economic decline were wrong, doesn’t mean their projections of the impact of the stimulus were wrong. When the administration was lobbying for the bill back in January it even predicted unemployment wouldn’t decline until later this year. Guess why? That’s when the real spending was always supposed to fully kick into gear.

Also in January—to show how much the economy has worsened since then—Obama’s economic team predicted without a stimulus the unemployment rate could hit 9 percent. Oops! It’s 9.5 percent now. Now, we know they’re not fortune tellers.

The real question—one that’s much more difficult to pursue—is what would unemployment be right now without the stimulus package? And I don’t mean just without the money that’s already trickled into the economy, but without the boost to confidence the bill’s passage gave to the economy. Not for nothing did the stock market bottom out three weeks after it passed. You may have noticed Time said the Obama team said the stimulus would shave half a point off unemployment by this time. That sounds perfectly reasonable to me and probably quantifiable, if Time had bothered.

Another legitimate question is could the money have been spent faster or more wisely? As was discussed plenty at the time by the administration and the press, the government isn’t just dropping hundreds of billions from helicopters and hoping it gets spent to juice the economy (although it certainly seems that way sometimes! See ProPublica’s sweet Eye on the Stimulus blog). It’s actually hard to spend that amount of money so quickly. So, only $60 billion of the $500 billion in stimulus spending has actually gone out the door so far—12 percent—in the twenty-one weeks since it was signed into law.

What’s going on here, Time? A clue can be found in the sole interview conducted for the piece, dropped in the last paragraph. It’s with a fellow from the far-right American Enterprise Institute:

“I don’t buy the argument that you just have to give the stimulus package more time… By the test they put forward to grade the stimulus, it is failing.”

That’s intellectually dishonest, of course, but I guess an appropriate kicker for this piece.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.